Is that a crow or raven? It’s a common question that arises when you first start noticing these large black birds soaring across the sky, and you want to be certain about which species you’re seeing.
At first glance the difference between crows and ravens may seem a bit subtle, but there are many reliable ways to tell them apart including:
- Size & Appearance (Ravens are noticeably larger than crows and have more ragged-looking feathers)
- Voice (Ravens have a much deeper and more guttural sound)
- Social Behavior (Crows are much more social. They have bigger families and tend to be louder. Ravens are much more introverted and quiet)
- Habitat (Ravens prefer wilderness over cities)
Each of these 4 characteristics can be used to quickly identify whether you’re dealing with crows or ravens (or both)… and it all plays into their individual personalities so you can understand them better from a behavior & communication perspective.
I know many people struggle to tell them apart, so let’s walk through the key differences in more detail and see some examples.
By the time we’re done here, you’re gonna feel really confident about how to tell the difference between crows and ravens both visually and from hearing their calls.
We’ll start by taking a look at the #1 simplest way to tell them apart…
1. Raven VS Crow Size (Identification)
Possibly the most important identification feature for telling apart crows & ravens is their overall size.
Crows are a lot smaller than Ravens. When compared side-by-side crows look quite skinny, and ravens have a much more beefy appearance. Ravens are about 1/3 larger than common crows and 1.5x larger than fish crows.
For a quick way to visualize this difference: Crows are about the same size as many common gulls like ring-billed gulls, but ravens are much closer to the size of a red-tailed hawk.
That means the difference in size between Crows and Ravens is huge!
And it’s possible to observe this difference from very long distances, even without binoculars or any need to study more subtle identification cues.
I often notice people get stuck on identification when they try to look at small details like the beak, or the tail shape, or ruffled feathers around the neck.
In actual practice, those are all tiny details that will probably just confuse you.
You really don’t need to look at any of that stuff in order to see that Ravens are in a completely different size category from Crows.
How To Judge Different Bird Size Categories
The ability to judge size categories is an important skill because it’s really the fastest way to tell Ravens from Crows in the field (it takes less than a second).
Most people have simply never practiced looking for different size categories with birds.
At first it might seem like a difficult skill, but it’s something you’ll master pretty quickly with just a little bit of practice.
You can do this by holding a simple awareness question as you explore the land. Something like – What’s the size of this bird compared to others?
Here are 5 basic size categories you should learn, including where Crows & Ravens are on the scale:
- Small songbirds – Sparrows, chickadees, etc.
- Large songbirds – Robins, jays, (also sharp-shinned hawks)
- Crow Sized Birds – Similar size to Cooper’s hawk, pigeons
- Raven Sized Birds – Similar size to Red-tailed hawks (Large soaring hawks)
- Largest birds – Eagles, Turkey vultures, Great blue herons
Just start with birds that are close to you and practice lumping them into general size categories.
Ask yourself, “Is that bird closer in size to a chickadee? A robin? Red-tailed hawk? Or what?”
Pretty soon, you’ll be able to confidently identify the difference between Crows & Ravens just by their size alone.
Practice with close-range birds first… and gradually you’ll be able to extend your reach with birds farther and farther away.
2. Crow VS Raven Calls & Sounds
Aside from the overall size, I always find vocalizations to be one of the easiest ways to identify Crows & Ravens.
Crows & Ravens both have a wide range of calls & sounds that they use for various purposes. Their calls are similar, but the tone of voice is very different.
Crow calls are raspy & high pitched. Ravens have a much deeper and more guttural voice that resonates and sounds more hollow.
Here are some audio recordings I dug up so you can hear the difference…
The Standard Crow Call
Here’s an example of a standard Crow call… often referred to as a “caw”.
Notice the raspy quality to this voice. It’s very characteristic of Crows. Almost everyone has probably heard this sound because it’s so common.
You might also notice these caws are happening in short bursts interspersed with long periods of silence. This is an important feature for telling the difference between alarm calls and contact calls.
The Standard Raven Call
Now let’s compare that Crow call to the voice of a Raven…
Notice how much deeper and resonant the Raven call is.
The actually call itself is pretty similar in terms of rhythm & length… but the voice making that sound is completely different.
A lot of people say the Ravens voice sounds more like a croak than a caw, and it’s pretty easy to hear the difference.
Crow Alarms VS Raven Alarms
These vocal differences transfer over to alarm calls too:
Besides the actual voice tone, one of the other main difference between crow & raven alarms is that ravens are less social.
When Crows alarm there are often multiple birds involved, and it can sometimes cause a pretty incredible racket!
Here’s an example of Crows alarming at a Red Shouldered Hawk.
Ravens tend to be much more subtle about their alarm patterns.
It just never has quite the same intensity as crows, but if you listen carefully in this recording… you’ll notice there are multiple Ravens making a much shorter version of their croaking call.
Next we have an example of an alarm sequence that involves both Crows & Ravens.
Listen carefully and see if you can hear the difference between the Raven alarms and Crow alarms…
The Crows in this recording are a different type, but they still have that characteristic raspy sound.
There are also a few other types of songbirds getting in on the action. They’re alarming at an Owl.
Crow Juvenile Sounds
The Juveniles too have another completely different call.
Crow younglings make a call that’s a bit higher pitched than their parents. One of the defining features of Juvenile calls is that they seem to almost never stop. It goes on all day long.
You’ll often hear this sound in late Spring or early Summer near nesting locations.
Raven Juvenile Sounds
In this recording, you can recognize the Juvenile call as the almost cartoonish sounding squawk.
There is also an adult in this recording giving a more typical Raven call.
Juvenile Ravens sound super crazy… almost like a dinosaur or a person screaming. It definitely stands out when you’re hiking in the woods!
I wrote a more in-depth analysis of juvenile raven calls that you can check out here – Juvenile Raven Vocalizations & Behavior
Clicks, rattles & other miscellaneous sounds
Crows and Ravens have a huge vocal repertoire.
Some vocalizations are only used during very specific moments and times of year, so the meaning behind a lot of these sounds is still a mystery.
It is however, pretty easy to identify Crows & Ravens by these sounds.
Here’s the Crow… This recording has a several examples of clicks & rattles. The sound is a bit quiet but it gets louder towards the end.
(If you turned up your sound to hear that last one… please remember to turn it back down before playing the next one. I don’t want you to hurt your ears)
Here’s the Raven doing a similar type of call… but you’ll notice the audio quality is completely different.
To me it sounds like someone tapping on wood blocks because of the tonal quality to it:
Ravens can also do some really bizarre sounding ping noises…
In my book – “What’s that crow saying?“, we looked at some of the most common communication patterns made by crows and what they mean.
This has prompted a lot of people to ask whether the same linguistic principles also apply to Ravens.
In general yes, Raven language works pretty much the same as Crow language… but because Ravens are so much more solitary, the actual expression is a bit more subtle (More on this in the behavior section below).
Ravens & Crows do all talk about the same topics – food, safety, territory, family contact, alarms, etc.
Because of the overall size contrast between Crows and Ravens, another thing to watch for is differences in their flight patterns.
This is definitely a more subtle thing to notice, but if you look for it you’ll see a few characteristics…
- Crows flap their wings faster, and almost constantly when they’re trying to get somewhere.
- Ravens flap their wings a lot slower, and they do significantly more gliding & soaring than crows.
- Because of the size, gliding and soaring, it’s quite possible to confuse a Raven with a large soaring hawk, but it’s unlikely you would make the same mistake with a Crow.
- Ravens are also much more likely to be traveling alone, while Crows tend to move in larger social groups.
Beak, Neck & Other Field Marks
Whenever you get a chance to observe Crows & Ravens more closely, there are also a few more subtle details that you can look at.
If you examine them closely, you’ll notice that Ravens are just all-around significantly more beefy than Crows.
You can see this in the neck, the beak, the wings, the overall body, and even their feet if you get to look at the tracks.
It’s kind of like the difference between someone who works out vs someone who only does cardio.
Another thing you’ll notice is that Raven necks seem to appear more scruffy, while crows appear smoother around the neck.
To be perfectly honest, I almost never bother looking at these ID features because by the time the bird gets close enough to see these small details, it should already be obvious whether you’re dealing with a Crow or Raven by size alone.
If you focus on identification by overall size and vocalizations – you’ll never actually have to inspect a Crow or Raven that closely in order to tell the difference.
Instead, you can direct your attention to something much more interesting… Behavior!
3. Crow VS Raven Behavior
Once you get beyond the basic ID skills… the next step is learning to understand the actual behavior & communication differences between Crows & Ravens.
Crows & Ravens are very closely related birds, but there are significant differences that essentially come down to social behavior & habitat.
Crows hang out in larger groups and make a lot more noise. They tend to thrive in areas with human activity.
Ravens are more reclusive and quiet. They have smaller families than Crows, and typically prefer more wilderness areas with less human activity.
These differences impact everything from nesting strategies, territorial behavior, predator evasion, & seasonal movement.
4. Territorial & Habitat Differences
As I already mentioned… Ravens tend to prefer more solitary wilderness habitats.
You’re more likely to see Ravens in places that have wide open expanses of land without a lot of human activity nearby.
This could be a big forest, or a desert, or open plains with occasional tree islands for nest sites.
Crows tend to be more adaptable to a wider range of habitat types.
Their ability to thrive in cities surrounded by humans is one of the main reasons why their numbers have grown so much in recent history relative to Ravens.
Ravens just seem to be a bit more picky about where they nest and raise families.
Do Crows & Ravens Get Along?
Over the years I’ve heard a number of stories about people who adamantly declare that Crow territories never overlap with Raven territories .
This can sometimes cause people to question whether they correctly identified a Crow or Raven in an “impossible” location.
I honestly don’t understand why people get so uptight about bird identification as to think there aren’t exceptions to the rules.
If you ever observe something that doesn’t match the textbook answer… it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re wrong.
I’ve observed that it is definitely possible to have both Ravens & Crows in the same place.
From my experience it seems to happen most often in places where human civilization edges up against a large wilderness area.
For the most part, Crows and Ravens will do their best to leave each other alone. Most environments are big enough that they can simply avoid direct conflict.
In areas of overlapping territories, there will typically be quite a bit of neutral territory that neither crows nor ravens defend.
They will tolerate each other in these zones, but sometimes conflict does happen between Crows and Ravens.
If a Raven gets too close to a Crow’s nest, they will respond with aggression, chasing & vocalizing to drive the invader away.
Conflict is most likely to happen in spring, during nesting season, and it will be most obvious when you get close to a nest.
It is known that Crows are more aggressive than Ravens at defending their nest territory.
Raven VS Crow Intelligence
Crows & Ravens are both extremely intelligent, but there seems to be subtle differences between how that intelligence manifests.
There’s evidence to suggest that Ravens are better at pure intelligence-based problem solving, while Crows perform better when there’s a social element to the task (like facial recognition, and deciding who to trust).
In terms of the actual manifestation of their intelligence in the field, you probably won’t really be able to tell the difference.
For all practical purposes, both Crows and Ravens are extremely intelligent with a wide variety of problem solving skills that gives them a major survival edge.
Crows & ravens around the world have been observed using tools, collecting shiny objects, even mimicking human words like parrots.
They’ve also demonstrated having the ability to count with small numbers, and hold grudges against humans who do them wrong.
What Are Crows & Ravens Telling You?
Because of their incredible intelligence, both Crows & Ravens are extremely helpful messengers.
In case you were wondering why these birds are so similar, it’s just because they’re very closely related.
Both Crows & Ravens are in the Corvid family, along with other species like Jays & Magpies.
They are technically songbirds, but their behavior is quite different from your typically backyard sparrow.
Compared to most songbirds, Corvids like Crows, Ravens, Jays & Magpies have much bigger territories and a much more confusing/misunderstood vocal repertoire.
This sometimes makes them more challenging to learn, but it’s well worth the rewards of increased awareness & messages they bring you.
If you want to learn more about Crow & Raven Language, come grab a free copy of my book – What’s That Crow Saying?